Larry Levan; born Lawrence Philpot, July 20, 1954 – November 8, 1992) was an American DJ best known for his decade-long residency at the New York City night club Paradise Garage, which has been described as the prototype of the modern dance club. He developed a cult following who referred to his sets as "Saturday Mass". Influential post-disco DJ François Kevorkian credits Levan with introducing the dub aesthetic into dance music. Along with Kevorkian, Levan experimented with drum machines and synthesizers in his productions and live sets, ushering in an electronic, post-disco sound that presaged the ascendence of house music.
Levan got his start alongside DJ Frankie Knuckles at the Continental Baths, as a replacement for the DJ from The Gallery, Nicky Siano. Levan's DJing style was influenced by Siano's eclectic style, and by The Loft's David Mancuso, Levan briefly dated Siano in the early 1970s. As Knuckles was still trying to make his way in the New York club scene, Levan became a popular attraction perhaps due to his "diva persona", which he developed in the city's notoriously competitive black drag "houses".
At the height of the disco boom in 1977, Levan was offered a residency at the Paradise Garage. Although owner Michael Brody, who employed Levan at the defunct Reade Street, intended to create a downtown facsimile of Studio 54 catering to an upscale white gay clientele, Levan initially drew an improbable mix of streetwise blacks, Latinos, and punks.
Open only to a select membership and housed in an otherwise unadorned building on King Street in Greenwich Village, the club and Levan's DJing slowly engendered themselves into the mainstream. The DJ and programming director from WBLS, Frankie Crocker often mentioned the club on air and based his playlists around Levan's sets. The Richard Long & Associates Sound system,(RLA) of the club included custom-designed "Levan Horn Bass Speakers".
Filling the void left by leading remixer Walter Gibbons, Levan became a prolific producer and mixer in the 1980s, with many of his efforts crossing over onto the national dance music charts. Among the records that received Levan's touch were his remixes of "Ain't Nothin' Goin On But The Rent" by Gwen Guthrie and "Heartbeat" by Taana Gardner, as well as his production work on "Don't Make Me Wait" by the Peech Boys a group that Levan formed and was part of (and who became the New York Citi Peech Boys when the Beach Boys threatened a lawsuit due to the similar sound of the name). With a strong gospel tinge in the vocal arrangements and driven by a tinkling piano, the latter song is a quintessential example of the deejay's soulful aesthetic. One of the first dance releases to incorporate a dub influence and an appended vocal-only edit, Levan tinkered with the song for nearly a year to the consternation of Mel Cheren, whose label, West End Records, was nearing bankruptcy. When it was finally released, much of the song's momentum had been lost and it stalled in the lower reaches of the charts.
As the popularity of the Garage soared in the mid-1980s just as many of his longtime friends lost their battles with AIDS, Levan became increasingly dependent upon PCP and heroin. While performing, he began to ensconce himself within a protective entourage of drag queens and younger acolytes. At the Paradise Garage, Levan was described as being 'worshipped, almost like a god' As beat-matching and stylistic adherence became the norm among club DJs, Levan's idiosyncratic sets (ranging the gamut from Evelyn "Champagne" King and Chaka Khan to Kraftwerk, Manuel Göttsching, & British synth-pop) elicited criticism from some quarters. Nevertheless, he remained at the vanguard of dance music; recordings of Levan's later sets at the Garage demonstrate his affinity for the insurgent sounds of Chicago house and hip-hop.
The Garage ended its run with a 48 hour-long party in September 1987, weeks before Brody died from AIDS-related complications. The closure devastated Levan, who knew that few club owners would tolerate his quirks and drug dependencies. Although Brody had verbally bequeathed the club's sound and lighting systems to Levan, they were instead left to Brody's mother in his will. This change was reportedly instigated by the late impresario's lover and manager, who reportedly despised Levan.
Despite protestations and pleas to the Brody family from Mel Cheren, the systems remained in storage as their property. Unable to secure a long-term residency after a stay at the short-lived Choice in the East Village alongside DJ/proprietor Richard Vasquez and Joey Llanos, Levan began to sell his valuable records for drug money. Friends like Danny Krivit would buy them back for him out of sympathy.
As the nineties dawned, Levan was on the brink of a comeback. Although dismissed as a relic in New York, his popularity had soared among connoisseurs of disco and early American electronic dance music in Europe and Japan. In 1991, he was brought over for the weekend to London by Justin Berkmann to DJ at London's Ministry of Sound nightclub where he ended up staying for 3 months remixing, producing and helping to tune the club's sound system. Although he was still dependent on heroin, Levan's 1992 tour of Japan garnered gushing accolades in the local press. Encouraged by Cheren, he entered rehab and made a tentative return to the studio. On the contrary, he informed his mother in June 1992 that he had "lived a good life" and was "ready to die"; Francois Kevorkian described Levan's final Japanese sets as nostalgic and inspirational, imbued with an air of bittersweetness and closure
Image: Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in the early eighties.